The major changes proposed in forest management rules for Ruidoso deal with spacing of tree clusters and how to handle different sizes of cut woody material.
Members of the village Planning and Zoning Commission at their meeting last week reviewed the changes with Village Forestry Director Dick Cooke as a step before the new rules go to a public hearing in January. If they receive a recommendation from the commission, the next step will be another public hearing and vote by the village council.
Cooke explained that the changes will occur in the forest management ordinance, but they also tie into Section 54 of village rules dealing with land use. A village-appointed forestry working group spent six months looking at fees for forestry debris hauling and to come up with different ways to use the by-product of tree thinning projects and the burden of hauling.
The first change proposed by Cooke was to review existing wording in Section 54 that stated "Old or large trees shall be defined as any species of tree, live or dead, 16 inches or greater in diameter measured 4.5 feet from the ground." The new definition would be 20 inches for live trees. No permits to cut dead trees would be required.
"We're run ragged writing permits for all dead trees 16 inches or less," Cooke said. "It's redundant to require people to get rid of those trees (in fuels reduction projects) and then require a permit. Sixteen-inch trees are pretty common. They're nothing special. A 20-inch diameter is an older tree and we would like to at least look at it before cutting is approved."
Under standards dealing with tree removal, the ordinance states that, "It is the responsibility of the property owner to provide for the disposal of the slash in a legal and appropriate manner. Failure to provide for disposal will subject the owner to the nuisance provisions of this Code."
Cooke wanted to clarify those responsibilities by adding that owners must separate piles with material more than six inches in diameter from material that is six inches or less. People then can pick up wood for burning, thereby reducing what's left for the village to collect and haul. Potential fuelwood will be left roadside for up to two months.
The six-inch or less material can be chipped, ground or mulched. Chipped or masticated material must be spread 30 feet or more from a structure and can be no more than two inches deep, Cooke said. Green firewood can be wrapped in six millimeter plastic for 10 months to minimize bark beetle habitat.
Owners of larger tracts may be offered the option of lop and scatter, and chipping slash onsite.
The rest of the changes would occur under the village's fuels management standards, Section 42-80, Standards for Fire Safety and Fire Handling. "The ordinance is hard to understand," Cooke said. "It deals with technical terms, not related to thinning and fuels management." Instead of writing about basal feet of trees, he prefers dealing with spacing of trees and how that changes based on the distance from a home.
"The spacing we have now is consistent over all slopes," he said. "There should be 10 feet between the crowns of trees, but fire experience tells you a fire leaps longer on steep slopes. More intense thinning is needed below a house on an intense slope."
The standards with the proposed changes would require more defensible space and distance between trees as slopes steepen, he said. His office can provide the service of determining the slope. If a cost-sharing project is involved, staff must mark the trees for removal.
Specific management plans would be written by village forestry staff for large properties or those with specific requirements, Cooke said. Larger tracts offer more flexibility to manage the fuels. Islands of trees for wildlife could be left standing. Piling and burning of slash also might be allowed, particularly if the land is adjacent to the national forest or state trust land, he said.
Lot owners would be required to rake their pine needles prior to March 15 each year, which is the beginning of fire season and the most critical time of the year for wildfire.
Commissioner John Cornelius asked if the village solid waste department is capable of collecting all of the needles if everyone in the village piles them on the roadsides at the same time.
"From a fire point, they're better on the street" than scattered on the ground near a house where they could carry flames, Cooke said.
"From an aesthetic point, they're not," Cornelius replied.
Other changes suggested by Cooke and the forest working committee included classifying blue spruce and ornamentals as flammable trees. They now are exempt, but Cooke said they could burn just as easily as pine.
"That's a lot of trees," Chairman Larry Wimbrow observed. Cooke said if a tree is near a house, they don't necessarily have to be cut, but they must be trimmed to above the eaves of the structure.
"Heat goes up," Cooke said. "During the Swallow Fire (in 2011), the fire came up the canyon because of all the smaller trees there and came under the decks and burned houses."
Trees now must be pruned to 15 feet above ground and above the structure eaves or removed within 10 feet of a house, but he's proposing 10 feet from the ground or one-third the height of the tree.
No firewood should be stored near a house or on a deck unless it is wrapped in an approved fireproof cover. Other woodpiles should be at least 20 feet from a house.
The same applies to flammable building material. Grass must be trimmed to 11 inches or lower and planted vegetation must be less than 18 inches in height. Roofs and gutters should be free of pine needles and debris. No low-growing vegetation such as juniper should be planted within the 10 feet of defensible space around a structure.